Film Review: 2017 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Documentary

This year's documentary shorts are dominated by the war in Syria and the world's refugee crisis. The likely winner is among them, although 'Joe's Violin' may get the Oscar because it skews toward the Academy's traditional preferences.
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This year’s Oscar-nominated documentary shorts include excellent human-rights filmmaking about the global refugee crisis. They include Daphne Matziaraki’s 4.1 Miles (USA and Greece, 2016), set on the Greek island of Lesbos, as well as Marcel Mettelsiefen’s Watani: My Homeland (U.K., 2016) and Orlando von Einsiedel’s The White Helmets (USA, 2016), both about Syria. The other nominees are Dan Krauss’ Extremis (USA, 2016), a 24-minute short about the end-of-life decisions made in the intensive-care unit of Oakland’s Highland Hospital, and Kahane Cooperman’s heartwarming 24-minute short Joe’s Violin (USA, 2016), about a Holocaust survivor whose donated violin helps a New York City adolescent realize her dream of becoming a music teacher.

Matziaraki is a first-time nominee, and 4.1 Miles, named for the distance between the shores of Turkey and one of the largest islands in the Aegean Sea, is the recent journalism graduate’s thesis film. A harrowing, fly-on-the-wall documentary, it is also a profile of Kyriakos Papadopoulos, a Greek Coast Guard captain who rescues refugees at sea each day. If at first it seems that Matziaraki edits for edge-of-the-seat pacing, actually all of the rescue missions in the 26-minute film took place on the same day; she was in fact unable to include two others. Matziaraki’s subject often volunteers for these grim missions, as do his crew, the medics and other authorities.

At one point in the short, an unconscious child lays supine, along with many other refugees, on a dock in front of a seaside café; they are treated by doctors as diners look on or join the fray, shouting to authorities to ask how they might help. As for Kyriakos, he is a reserved man, a modest hero, who says he is most bothered by the “memories of war” he sees in the refugee children’s eyes. During a dinner conversation about the crisis, someone wants to know why the refugees do not wait for calm seas; Kyriakos does not reply. “I can’t reassure them,” he says. Since 2015, 600,000 migrants have made the crossing, many clambering aboard not from a boat, but as we see in the short, directly from the foaming, turbulent waters. 4.1 Miles is an excellent piece of reporting, one that may win its young filmmaker an Oscar.

Another likely contender for the top prize is The White Helmets, about a group of volunteer first responders in Aleppo. Through direct-to-camera testimony, and astonishing footage of the men dashing into buildings that have just been bombed, and are sometimes bombed again after they enter them, von Einsiedel’s 41-minute short details the devastation that is Aleppo. The short also provides glimpses into the men’s motives. Mohammad, formerly a resistance fighter, explains he quit soldiering because “it is better to rescue a soul than to take one.” Another man recalls how a baby’s cry made him and his fellow “white helmets” (named for the construction helmets they wear) work into the night on a particularly grim bombsite. The newborn they found is now one-and-a-half years old and is called the “miracle baby.” The group is seen visiting the child in the documentary.

There are 2,900 “white helmets” in 120 centers throughout Syria; 130 of them have been killed since 2013, but altogether they saved 58,000 lives. Aside from the field work of the Aleppo group, von Einsiedel films their one-month training in Southern Turkey with others from different regions. During that session, Aleppo’s hospitals and clinics fall to Russian bombs. One of the white helmets, Abu, loses a brother who was recovering in a hospital, but he learns that his son survived. The men, feeling defeated, take a day off from training. They are never free of the war. The White Helmets does not trumpet their courage; instead, it celebrates the humanity of these men who each day encounter incredible inhumanity.

First-time nominee Mettelsiefen’s 39-minute film Watani: My Homeland is about one of the last families to remain in a dangerous area of Aleppo so that the father can command a unit of the Free Syrian Army. (The FSA, founded in 2011 by former Syrian Army soldiers, vows to bring down the Assad government.) Speaking directly to the camera, Abu Ali, seated next to his wife Hala, confesses that he “risks his children for the revolution” because they are “special.” He and Hala were married eight years before she was able to conceive. The three girls and one boy adore their father, and when he is captured by ISIS, apparently betrayed by his own men, they wait for his return, until Hala decides that they must emigrate to Germany.

The extent of Hala and Abu’s nationalism is difficult to comprehend, and the filmmaker fails to provide any context for it. Shortly after Abu’s explanation, during an interview with seven-year-old Farah, the girl stops in mid-sentence and, with fear in her eyes, notes that a bomb has just fallen. It is audible on the soundtrack. Farah knows what sort of bomb it is, and she is about to jolt from her chair. After a few seconds, she relaxes, and explains to Mettelsiefen that it did not explode. While the filmmaker’s compassion for the family is apparent, and his short possesses flashes of insight into the plight of children in war zones, as this scene does, in the end Watani is episodic: It provides a photographic record of the family’s suffering, rather than a discerning portrait of their motivation and inner lives.

Extremis, by second-time nominee Dan Krauss (2006’s The Death of Kevin Carter), is shot in cinema-vérité style, and follows a doctor and her team as they help patients and their families decide how to end life with the least amount of pain and a modicum of dignity. Krauss gained incredible access to two patients, Donna and Selena; Selena’s family performed CPR for 26 minutes on the way to the emergency room. Krauss’ short is not easy to watch, and it covers familiar territory, the conundrums of a modern age in which “life” can be extended. While the filmmaker provides some insight into the doctor’s thinking, there are no surprises here; doctors do not generally believe in miracles, but families do, as Selena’s daughter proves when she explains why she will not end her mother’s life support.

The second female nominee (two in this category is a pleasant surprise), Kahane Cooperman is an alumnus of Maysles Films, a fact that is apparent in her loosely edited and intimate approach to Joe’s Violin. Joe is a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor who has been unable to play his violin for seven years; he bought the instrument for a pack of cigarettes shortly after World War II. Joe’s mother and his youngest brother died in Treblinka, and in one of the last letters Joe received from her, she transcribed the lyrics of a song that she hoped would cheer him. It became his favorite piece of music, one he played often.

Hearing of a foundation that donated used instruments to schoolchildren, Joe made the difficult decision to relinquish his violin. Brianna received it. When the 12 year-old graduates from her high school where everyone takes violin lessons, someone else will receive Joe’s violin so they can play in the school’s orchestra. The young woman of color and the elderly Jewish man meet in the short’s heartwarming conclusion. While Cooperman spends too much time on tangents, such as the nonprofit that administers the recycled instrument program, and the music teacher who leads the high school’s orchestra, she is a filmmaker skilled in developing a rapport with her subjects and in portraying their emotions. Given the past preferences of Academy voters, Joe’s Violin may garner the Oscar.

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